The news that the government is bringing in legislation to abolish all sexism from the Indian Act is good in more ways than one. The second way it is good is that this measure has been forced on the government by the stubborn insistence of the Senate, a body usually dismissed as having no useful function.
On this occasion, led by two indigenous Senators, Lillian Dyck, of Saskatchewan, the offspring of Cree and Chinese parents, and Murray Sinclair, an Ojibwa from Manitoba, both of them with distinguished records of public service in the indigenous as well as the general interest, the Senate rejected the government’s first version of a bill designed to correct some anomalies in the Indian Act, then rejected a second attempt on the grounds that it still contained some unacceptable provisions, before finally, after long consideration, the government caved before the upper chamber, and has promised a corrected version of its proposals, which even now, the Senate has delayed from passing because they want to be sure the government has done what it has promised.
If all this works out as promised, some of the most ridiculous provisions of Canadian law ever perpetrated will have been corrected. I remember the first time I learned of these unconscionable provisions of Indian law, which happened a few days after I first met Indian people in 1968.
I had been assigned to go to a remote village in North-western Ontario, a village accessible only by railway, where a group of native people were reported to be living in appalling conditions. En route I was directed to a native woman in Thunder Bay, Mrs Paul McRae, who had married a non-Indian school principal. Although from a well-known Indian family, one of her brothers the chief of a large local reserve, and a sister one of Canada’s foremost aboriginal artists, she told me she no longer was recognized by the government as an Indian, because of her marriage to a white man. I could scarcely believe my ears, but she assured me it was true.
She generously handed me on to Chief Willie John, chief of the Lake Helen reserve, at the foot of Lake Nipigon, the lake that lies directly north of Lake Superior. That was one of the luckiest accidents that ever happened to me, because Willie was a wonderful little man with whom I spent the next week or so as we travelled north to Geraldton, where we caught the train across the wilderness of north-western Ontario to Armstrong, the small town in question. When I went to pick him up, Willie introduced me to his wife, whom he had married while in the army. She was a full status Indian, he said, because though a Yorkshirewoman born and bred, she had married a status Indian. Once again my jaw dropped at this insanity. But it was only the beginning of similar shocks I received in the next thirty years or so as I familiarized myself with the legislative record of what Canada’s settlers from Europe, who had arrived equipped with a formidable arsenal of ignorance and arrogance, had imposed on the original inhabitants. It was a vast assembly of laws designed to destroy the way of life of these people, of whose reality the settlers had only the vaguest idea, and even that dramatically out of focus. Indeed, it was a programme designed to wipe the Indians, so-called, off the face of the earth, a full-scale attack of genocidal proportions, that, fortunately, never really succeeded.
That week I spent with Willie John, who was a man of vast experience, successively a soldier, a tugboat captain, a heavy-equipment operator, a social agitator on behalf of returned aboriginal servicemen who arrived home after fighting for freedom to find they still couldn’t vote and had to sit in their own section of the cinemas, and were forbidden to do this, that and the other because they were treated as children in the care of their big-brother government, introduced me to a Canada I could scarely have imagined existed.
Before I returned to Montreal I met Mrs McRae’s brother who was a major chief, and we engaged in a vigorous discussion as he attempted to defend the sanctions taken against his sisters because they had married white men. Brain-washed, the poor fellow, as so many of the Indian leaders I met in succeeding years appeared to be, ready to defend any foolish government law in order not to disturb their own small centres of power.,
When I returned I wrote a piece saying the people Willie had introduced me to as he, an operative of the Company of Young Canadians, listened to their problems and undertook to represent them to the relevant authorities, were living lives that reminded me of nothing so much as the characters in Gorki’s Lower Depths, and I felt sure that some day they would throw up their own artists to describe their condition to Canadians who for the most part had no idea what had been done to these people in their name.
It is hardly the place to go into a catalogue of the terrible laws passed to control Indians. I have already done that in a book I wrote in 1993, which sold some 300 copies, and was almost completely ignored by the media, most of which carefully abstained from reviewing it. Suffice to say that if Lillian Dyck and Murray Sinclair had lived at an earlier time, neither of them would have been legally entitled to claim Indian ancestry, because they each have a passle of university degrees, and at one time, the moment an Indian received a University degree, he or she was automatically stripped of his Indian identity and declared to be a white man or woman.
In the chapter in my book outlining “the wonderful world of the Indian Act”, I have listed the more oppressive of these legislative acts taken against Indians in categories that give a sense of how all-embracing were the oppressive controls: land; community government; restrictions on movement, assembly and speech (at one time a pass was needed for an Indian to leave a reserve); production (Indians were encouraged to become farmers, and then forbidden from selling their produce); liquor; health; enfranchisement; inheritance; ceremonies rituals and amusements; and education. In each of these categories at one time or another repressive laws were passed.
The now well-known scandal of the residential schools in which from the age of six students were abused sexually and physically, often died and were buried without notifying the parents, flogged for speaking the only language they knew, their native tongue, and all administered by various religions (which have since apologized for the very existence of their schools), all in the name of the national objective “to detach the children from the barbarous lives of their parents” --- a prescription actually written down at the time, which is in itself surely one of the most barbaric objectives ever established by this or any government, is merely the apotheosis of this vast architecture of genocidal legislation designed to wipe the Indians from the face of Canada.
Throughout this entire story the government of Canada has played an equivocal, weasly role, illustrated by the latest wheeze discovered by the Dyke-Sinclair team: that in their revised programme designed to abolish sexism from the Indian Act, they have prescribed that children born of male Indians before 1951 who were denied Indian status should be retrospectively given status, but that should not apply to children born of female Indians who before 1951 had lost their status by marriage.
Still at it, eh? Nuff sed!